From Despair to Deliverance
I considered starting this sermon by breaking into a rousing rendition of “Any Dream Will Do” from the musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – I considered it very briefly, and then came to my senses. The opening of a sermon is supposed to relax the listeners and put them at ease, not torture them. Maybe I should have asked the choir to sing it…
But you know a Bible story has to be pretty compelling if it gets its own Broadway musical and a later movie version starring Donny Osmond. And the synopsis of the musical is mostly pretty true to the actual storyline of the biblical narrative. Just to refresh your memories (and because it’s one of my favourite stories in the Bible), in the book of Genesis, Joseph is the favourite out of 12 sons of his father, Jacob, because he was the first born son of Jacob’s favourite wife Rachel, who hadn’t been able to bear children for many years.
As a sign of his favouritism, Jacob gives Joseph a “Coat of Many Colours” (which, as you can imagine, doesn’t sound as good for the name of a Broadway musical as “Technicolour Dreamcoat”). Of course, this doesn’t exactly make his 11 brothers very happy! What makes matters worse is that Joseph is a dreamer – and not in the John Lennon “Imagine” sense; no, Joseph receives prophetic dreams, dreams that contain messages from God. In at least two of these dreams he learns that he will one day rule over his 11 brothers, and in a fit of youthful naiveté, he shares this information with his brothers, who grow even more resentful.
Instead of killing Joseph as some of them wanted to do, they solve the problem by selling him into slavery; then they take his beautiful coat and splatter it with blood and they tell their father that his favourite son Joseph is dead.
But Joseph is not dead! In fact, he is taken to Egypt where he rises through the ranks of “employees” in the household of Potiphar, who was the captain of the palace guard, eventually reaching the heights of authority, second only to Potiphar himself. Potiphar’s wife then tries to seduce Joseph and he flees the scene leaving his garment behind, refusing to sin against God by committing adultery. Potiphar’s wife then uses the garment he left to make false accusations against him, and Potiphar throws Joseph in jail.
And they say the Bible is “boring.” This one story has more drama than a whole season of Downton Abbey! And that’s just Act 1 of the musical.
After that, Joseph is released from jail when it is discovered that he is a dream expert and the only one who can interpret the perplexing dreams that Pharaoh has been having; from those dreams, he is able to warn Pharaoh of a famine that will come to the land, but only after a period of abundance, so there is time to prepare by storing up grain. Joseph is given authority over the whole land of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, and when the famine hits, Egypt is prepared.
Back at home, though, his brothers and his father Jacob are not faring as well. They hear that there is a surplus of grain in Egypt, so they go and find themselves bowing down to Joseph, completely unaware that it’s their brother…until now. In the verses we heard this morning, Joseph reveals to his brothers that he is, in fact, the favourite son of Jacob who they sold off so many years before.
Understandably, their reaction to finding their long-lost brother is not celebratory. There they are, hungry, desperate and begging for food for their father and their wives and children, and they find out that the person they are dependent on is the one person who would have every right – and every authority – to throw them all into prison to starve to death. And the thing is, they know that’s exactly what they deserve. They had sold him off and they thought that was the end of him, so they forgot about him and went on with their lives. But now here they are, face to face with the very person they wronged, confronted with their own guilt and wrong-doing from all those years ago. This was truly their past coming back to haunt them!
But Joseph doesn’t respond how they thought he would; he doesn’t respond the way they would have responded if they had been in his shoes. He doesn’t respond the way I think I – and possibly many other people – might have responded to seeing them again. Other than the fact that he toys with them a little bit before revealing his true identity, we get the feeling he has been truly missing them all these years, and that he still deeply loves them. He is overcome with emotion at the sight of these men who had done such a horrible thing to him.
After all that he went through, how did Joseph not sink into bitterness, resentment and despair? Despite his kind and innocent demeanor, Joseph was betrayed by the ones closest to him when his own brothers sold him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites. He had never meant anyone any harm, and yet they sold him – his own family. Betrayal – shakes our sense of security. Takes the rug out from under us, and the closer the people are to us, the more painful the betrayal feels. Betrayal by a stranger might make us angry, but betrayal by someone close to us makes us question our self-worth. That alone would have been enough for Joseph to condemn his brothers to starvation in an Egyptian prison.
There was even more pain added on top of that. After being his father’s favourite son for so many years, he now had to get used to being a lowly servant in a stranger’s house, in a foreign land, far away from his home, with no family, no friends, cut off from his culture and traditions. How did he not give up hope?
But he didn’t. Instead of giving up hope, he worked hard in the house of Potiphar, who had bought him from the Ishmaelites. He stayed honest and caring. He demonstrated integrity. And the scripture tells us that “the Lord gave him success in everything he did,” and the Lord blessed Potiphar’s whole house because of Joseph.
Then Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses him, and after having worked hard and been a good man, and having built himself a good life, he is betrayed again and subsequently sent to prison. Betrayed again, and now the victim of unthinkable injustice, Joseph now spends years in prison. But even there, he maintains his integrity; and it says “the Lord was with him and granted him favour in the eyes of the warden,” and gave Joseph success in whatever he did.
The warden put Joseph in charge of other prisoners, when one of those prisoners – a member of Pharaoh’s staff – is being released, he promises to put in a good word for Joseph. But once he himself is free, he forgets all about Joseph stuck there back in prison. And Joseph stays there two more years before the other prisoner remembers, and they call him to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, and the rest, as they say, is history.
How does he go through all that, how does he endure that much suffering, but when he sees the men who are responsible for it all he says to them, “do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you”?
How do we cope, and how do we come out of it when we have experienced devastating betrayal or unthinkable justice? How do we forgive? How does a mother even survive losing all seven of her children at once in a house fire in a strange land? How does a family recover from losing an 11-year-old girl at the hands of her own father? How do we get over it when our hearts are broken?
In the book Man’s Search for Meaning, which has become one of the most influential books ever written, Viktor Frankl tells of his experience in a concentration camp during the Second World War, and describes the horrors of day to day life for the prisoners in heartbreaking detail. He reflects on the atrocities he witnessed, the suffering he endured, and the absolute injustice of it all, and he asks himself, “how is it possible for a human being to survive such a horror?” For Frankl, the answer lies in the prisoner’s ability to envisage a future for himself for to find meaning, moment by moment, in the simple fact that he is alive.
In this, Frankl likes to quote Nietzsche, who wrote, “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how.’” Someone who can find meaning and purpose in their life, even in times of difficulty, can usually move forward moment by moment, without succumbing to despair. For Joseph – and for us as Christians – that meaning is to be found in the promises of God.
When my brother died in 2011 of lung cancer –despite being only 49 years old and a non-smoker – I felt like I had just learned what it really means for your heart to break. The grief, for my whole family, was heavy. But, like Frankl, I looked for the meaning that can be found in every moment of life, even the moments of suffering; and I realized that as I helped to take care of my brother in his final weeks, and as I comforted him when he took his last breath, I experienced a depth of love I had never experienced before. I discovered something new and powerful about myself: that I was capable of great personal sacrifice for the sake of someone I love. In his final weeks, I learned to be vulnerable in expressing my feelings – I learned how important it is to tell people that you love them. How important it is to allow yourself to love deeply. These are things that I would never have experienced or learned if I hadn’t gone through the deeply painful experience of losing my brother.
Now, I want to be careful here, because I don’t want you to misunderstand what I’m saying: I’m not saying that God put my brother through cancer in order to teach me these things. No, a loving God doesn’t make other people sick in order to teach us life lessons. Nor am I saying “I’m so glad my brother went through that so that I could have this life experience.” Of course not!
What I’m saying is that even out of the worst experiences of our lives, God can give us something that offers us a sense of meaning, of purpose, something that gives us comfort and hope. I cherish the memories of my brother and the conversations we had when he was sick and dying. They give me great comfort, even to this very day. Painful things are going to happen to us all in life, but we have a powerful and loving God who won’t let the pain have the last word; who won’t let the pain crush us, but rather he takes that pain and redeems it, and can turn it into something beautiful and something with purpose and meaning.
I’m also a different minister since losing him – when I meet with bereaved families, when I conduct funerals, when I counsel people going through difficult times, I have more to offer them than words or doctrines; I can offer them my heart; I can share their burden of grief. So there is more meaning found within the pain I experienced, as I can use it to help other people.
Don’t get me wrong – I wish more than anything that I could have my brother back, but I can’t; so what do I do with that? I look to God, who is the one who can give purpose and meaning to everything in life, so that despair does not have the last word.
Those things which would cause us harm, those things that have the power to crush our spirits, God can use for our good and for the good of others, just as he did with Joseph.
God is in control. A loving and merciful God is in control of all of the circumstances of our lives. That’s what Joseph’s experience shows us. I mean, after all that his brothers put him through, after all the suffering he has had to endure as a result, how could Joseph forgive possibly them out of his own human heart? For the human heart, it’s impossible. How could he get past the fact that his own brothers were responsible for his suffering the loss of his family, and his painful time in prison?
Only by trusting in God and by keeping God’s promises in his heart. When he was still just a young boy, God had shown him in a dream how this would all turn out, and even well into adulthood, Joseph trusted that God would be faithful to his promise and. So, like Frankl, he was able to find meaning in all that he had experienced – he found meaning in his brothers’ betrayal; he found meaning in his time in prison. There was no way Joseph could have predicted that he would end up ruling the whole country of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. But God had told Joseph in his dreams what the future would hold – that his brothers would bow down before him – and until that happened Joseph knew his story was not over. So Joseph clung to his hope in God moment by moment by moment.
Later on, after Jacob, their father, had died, the brothers thought that now Joseph would seek revenge on them; that maybe he had shown mercy on them for the sake of their beloved father. But Joseph held no bitterness or resentment in his heart and said this: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” (Gen 50:20-21)
Moment by moment, trusting in God was the only way he could get through the desperate situation, not knowing the future, but trusting that God was in control.
In so many ways, Joseph is a foreshadowing of Christ – he was betrayed by a friend whom he loved; he was punished unjustly and suffered more than anyone should ever have to suffer, even though he was perfectly innocent. And moment by moment, he trusted in the will of his Father, even unto death. And God did not fail him, but raised him to new life.
What is the promise that God has made to us in Christ? That suffering and despair will never have the last word in our lives. That death leads to resurrection in the hands of our Almighty Father. That despair will always give way to deliverance.
When it seems like there is chaos all around – in our lives, in the world – we can know and be assured that God is still in control, and that he can bring good out of what seems like the most desperate situation.
Because of Joseph’s experience, we can know that God will be faithful to His promises to us. It may take years, or even decades; we may endure pain and adversity along the way. But we can cling to the promises of God that the pain and adversity are not the end of the story, just as they were not the end of Joseph’s story.
If you are in a time of struggle, of pain or of despair, moment by moment look to God to guide you through it so that the thing you fear may bring you to harm can be redeemed by God, and used for a good and life-giving purpose. Amen.